When you think of countries that produce wine, France, America (California in particular), Spain and Italy may come quickly to mind. Austria may not be one of the countries at the top of the list (it is 16th in wine production as of 2013), but the 1985 wine scandal placed it front and center.
Austria is a largely mountainous, land-locked country considered to be part of the neutral core of Europe. It is at the center of European traffic between east and west along the great Danubian trade route, and between north and south through the Alpine passes. About 60 percent of the total area of Austria is covered by woods and meadows, while forests occupy another 10 percent of the country. Austria has a history of making wine dating back 4,000 years, and for most of the 20th century Austria provided wine in large quantities to Germany.
However, in the early 1980s the quality of Austrian wine plummeted. According to an article in the New York Times, “the harvest failed to produce the needed amounts [of grapes], or when they did, as in the abundant 1982 harvest, the grapes were sour.” As a result, some vintners illicitly sweetened their products with glycol, resulting in the 1985 Austrian Antifreeze Wine Scandal. The scandal was uncovered by German wine laboratories performing quality controls on wines sold in Germany, and immediately made headlines around the world. The affected wines were instantly withdrawn from the market, and a number of people involved in the scandal were sentenced to prison or heavily fined.
The substance called ethylene glycol was first synthesized in 1856 by French chemist Charles-Adolphe Wurtz. It was produced commercially in 1917, but at that time it was primarily used in the manufacture of dynamite. In addition to being an effective substitute for glycerol in the manufacture of high explosives, ethylene glycol also turned out to have a number of characteristics that made it an ideal antifreeze. In addition to mixing readily with water in any proportion, it has a lower freezing point than water and a higher boiling point. Ethylene glycol, diethylene glycol and triethylene glycol have one, two and three ethylene groups, respectively. Diethylene glycol and triethylene glycol are produced by the reaction of ethylene glycol with ethylene oxide.
Diethylene glycol (DEG) is a colorless, practically odorless liquid with a sweetish taste – and it’s also poisonous. In 1937 a Tennessee drug company added diethylene glycol to sulfanilamide to create a liquid alternative for the drug. This resulted in the death of 105 people in 15 states. In Cape Town, South Africa seven children died in 1969 because they were administered sedatives containing diethylene glycol instead of propylene glycol. Five patients in Spain were being treated for burns, but died when it was discovered that the topical silver sulfadiazine ointment contained DEG. And the list continues to include India in 1986, Nigeria in 1990, Bangladesh and Argentina in 1992, Haiti in 1996, China and Panama in 2006. And of course, the worldwide tainted toothpaste incident of 2007 sent panic across the globe.
In September 2014, a world-renowned breast cancer oncologist was sentenced to 10 years in prison for attempting to poison a colleague whom she was dating by lacing his coffee with a chemical used in antifreeze. Dr. Ana Maria Gonzalez-Angulo was convicted of aggravated assault for spiking Dr. George Blumenschein’s coffee with ethylene glycol, that same sweet-tasting chemical commonly found in antifreeze.
According to a local news report, when Blumenschein, who reportedly preferred his coffee black, asked Gonzalez-Angulo why the coffee tasted sweet, she told him she put Splenda® in it. When he asked her for a fresh cup, she allegedly told him to finish the coffee she gave him before serving him another cup, which tasted just as sweet. The local television station reported that Blumenschein experienced slurred speech (ICD-10-CM code R47.81), poor balance (code R26.81, Unsteadiness on feet) and loss of fine motor skills (code R27.8, Other lack of coordination) approximately four hours after drinking the poisoned coffee. He was hospitalized after 16 hours, and doctors determined he was experiencing central nervous system depression (code R09.2, Cardiorespiratory failure), cardiopulmonary complications and renal failure (code N17.8, Other acute kidney failure). Tests revealed that the amount of ethylene glycol he consumed could have been fatal.
Dr. Blumenschein survived the January 27, 2013 poisoning (code T52.3X3A, Toxic effects of glycols, assault, initial encounter), but his kidney function has been reduced by 60 percent as a result of the ethylene glycol he consumed. He required emergency dialysis to survive, and the poisoning will likely shorten his life. The doctor believes Gonzalez-Angulo became violent when he chose to break off his affair with her in favor of his longtime girlfriend, Dr. Evette Toney. Ultimately, Blumenschein and Toney were satisfied with the outcome of the trial, according to local news reports (the defense plans to file an appeal). Although her conviction will prevent her from returning to work with patients, Dr. Gonzalez-Angulo may be able to become a cancer researcher, said her defense lawyer.
In the words of the immortal bard (Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet): “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” And remember: every sweet-tasting thing isn’t sugar!